In theatres this Friday from director Theodore Melfi and 20th Century Fox is a moment in history that finally has come to the surface releasing the HIDDEN FIGURES.
The space race is on as the United States and Russia compete to put a man in space. Becoming frustrated as Russia pulls forward, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) wants only the very best on his team. That would be Katherine Gobel (Taraji P. Henson), an African-American mathematician who is sent to work in a room full of men who clearly have their own issues with race.
Upset that she is part of the team; roadblocks are put in her way by colleague Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons) who isn’t happy she is there. To make matters worse, there is no restroom close by and the coffee pot seems to be off limits. Determined not to let that stop her, Katherine is joined by friends Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) who wants to be an engineer and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) who decides that she will move up the NASA ladder her way.
Slowly Katherine proves that her methods are spot on and so much so that John Glenn (Glen Powell) supports not only the work but Katherine personally. Harrison sees the tension between Katherine and Paul which calls for serious changes. Her frustration lies in the fact that the computations change daily and all her hard work is for nothing. By standing her ground the group begins to come together.
Dorothy learns through Vivian Mitchell (Kristen Dunst) that something called an IBM computer is the mathematical problem solver of the future. Knowing that means the jobs of she and the other women are in jeopardy, Dorothy takes matters into her own capable and smart hands.
Mary has the dream of becoming an engineer with NASA but knows that further education is something out of her reach. Told by capsule maker Karl Zielinski (Olek Drupa) that she needs to make it happen, Mary takes her dream to court!
When John Glenn prepares to go into space, he calls upon Katherine to give him the go from Mission Control – a place she has earned to be!
Henson as Katherine is smart and sassy working her way through many roadblocks. Believing in herself and her mathematical gift is inspirational as it should be with three young daughters looking to her for guidance. Taking on the larger position of putting a man into space, she puts her head down and pushes forward – until its time to do more than push forward. Henson gives Katherine grit and heart never letting one moment of doubt take her down.
Spencer as Dorothy is a woman who knows she is doing the work without the pay of a supervisor. As a problem solver, Dorothy takes it upon herself to learn about the new technology coming to NASA. Spencer has proven continually to be an actress who takes her roles to heart and Dorothy is no exception.
Monae as Mary is the saucy one of the bunch who has no problem telling it like it is. Telling people their issues is an easy way of hiding her own – which is to find a way to fulfill her dream. Feeling as if NASA is pushing the engineering dream further out of reach, Mary discovers a way to not only get the education she needs but make her mark doing so.
Costner as Harrison doesn’t have time for games or those who play them. Bringing Katherine into the group he makes it clear that he doesn’t have time for anything but the best. Once he is made aware of the conditions Katherine is dealing with, he doesn’t waste any time removing barriers in his department of NASA. Costner leads but in such a way that his character is important but also steps aside for his talented lady costars to tell their part of the story.
Other cast include Mahershala Ali as Col. Jim Johnson, Aldis Hodge as Levi Jackson, Kimberly Quinn as Ruth, Kurt Krause as Sam Turner, Ken Strunk as Jim Webb, and Donna Biscoe as Joylette Coleman.
HIDDEN FIGURES is a film that digs deep into the history of NASA on a project that is hugely historical. What also gives these performances such richness is the set design and costuming. Any time I watch a period piece it is important to transport not only me but all viewers into the, pardon the pun, space and time of the story. HIDDEN FIGURES and director Melfi do just that.
I had the pleasure of speaking with director Ted Melfi about HIDDEN FIGURES and what it took to bring that piece of history to the silver screen.
JJ: Good morning Ted, thank you so much for speaking with me today about your film.
TM: You are so welcome Jeri.
JJ: I had never heard this story before, what inspired you to become involved?
TM: When I first read the proposal by producer Donna Gigliotti and had the same reaction as everyone else of ‘How is this possible? There is no way this is a true story.’ I started to dig into it and understand that it was a true story of how NASA had a team of women putting our guys up into space I was floored. I mean I have two daughters and they are still being told in this day and age ‘don’t worry about learning the math’. I find that shocking especially since we are trying to lift them up and show them that they can do anything a man can. This story inspired me and there way no way I could say no too making this film.
JJ: Especially since it is part of history, a lot of girls were told even when I was younger that math wasn’t important to learn.
TM: It is a shame that we minimized women in Science, Math and Engineering and the truth is they are as good if not more so having the mind for it.
JJ: I think maybe a little more patience too.
JJ: When choosing the cast, what drew you to these three women in particular?
TM: I have been in love with Taraji P. Henson’s work ever since the film BENJAMIN BUTTON and in that film she blew me away. My wife and I saw it together and said ‘who is that actress?’ that was playing Brad Pitt’s mother in the film. I was blown away by her passion, strength and raw power and honestly. Then you watch her in the role of Cookie in the television series Empire and that woman from BEJAMIN BUTTON was now Cookie in Empire. I knew that she had this incredible range in her and I knew she would be the perfect off-beat choice of Katherine Johnson. I wanted to go for it and she was so inspired by the challenge and took it on. She is absolutely amazing and inspiring in this role.
JJ: And Octavia Spencer?
TM: Octavia, I mean there is nothing that I can say enough about her as Dorothy Vaughn.
JJ: I was actually thinking the same thing. I mean what more can you say about her?
TM: I know, Octavia could play absolutely anything you could throw at her and it would be fantastic. She is one of the greatest actresses of our time in my mind. That one was a no brainer. Janelle Monae playing Mary Jackson and we wanted someone different, unique and exciting for this character. Janelle is exciting and passionate and wild and inspired and takes dramatic turns. She always makes wild choices with her work and it shows in this performance as well.
JJ: It’s the beautiful trio to be sure.
TM: Yes, Taraji brings the quiet introverted brain of the group. Octavia is the foreman and the maternal leader of the group and Mary is the wild child who always has to be reminded that it’s 1961.
JJ: You have Kevin Costner in the mix who seems to be the buffer.
TM: Kevin Costner is one of the most unique men I’ve ever met in my life. He brings that integrity and worth ethic into every thing he does. His character, Al Harrison, represents the glue that kind of holds the teetering space program together. He balances the science and the math along with the business and imaginative people. Back in 1961 in the Jim Crow south is dealing with racial tensions in the workplace. It’s not that he is unaware of what is happening as much as he doesn’t care. He is about the mission. In his mind the mission and the math of what they are trying to do trumps race and sex of a person.
JJ: I hope that people get that there are so many issues in this film, not just one specific issue. How was that for you as a director covering it all?
TM: It was exciting to be honest with you. To me the 1960s was an explosive time in history. The space race was happening, the Cold War was happening, Civil Rights issue were happening, the Kennedy assassination was happening, Martin Luther King assassination was happening…
JJ: See, that’s what I mean, so many, many issues!
TM: They are all running parallel to each other as well. The Freedom Riders bus protested to Washington D.C. the day before Alan Shepard launched his first mission into space. That should tell you the parallels between these two races and how they basically started to achieve success together in tandem is mind boggling. To pack all of this in one movie was an enjoyable task and to be able to get to say something about who we were and who we are and what we can become as a country when we work together.
JJ: Did you find that you had to do a lot of your own research to allow yourself to get deeper into the film?
TM: Oh yes, I did endless research. I researched every detail of the movie. I dug into a mass amount of books and documentaries about all of this. The Discovery Channel had a series When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions (2008) and I dug as deeply into Civil Rights as I did NASA. I re-watched the PBS series Eyes on the Prize [A documentary that documents the Civil Rights Movement from 1952 to 1965] about how it all occurred. I did tons of photo research as well. In regards to the math I learned everything from the ground up from like trajectory calculations etc. I kind of became a dangerous expert of it all.
JJ: When you are talking about the mathematical side of it, how did Taraji handle it? I mean she’s writing equations on the board so fast!
TM: Taraji being the mathematician consulted with the same person I did from Rudy Home who received his PhD. out of Morehouse College. He trained Taraji and she memorized the math having so much time with him. Taraji might actually be a genius on her own. What she can do I have not seen that often, memorize something and understand it in a very short period of time. She did it effectively and efficiently in one take.
JJ: I realize there is so much in this film to experience but as the director what would you want viewers to take with them after watching the film?
TM: See the film to be reminded of how great American has always been and how when we work together, regardless of race, sex or creed, there is nothing that this country can not achieve together.
JJ: It’s so very well said and very true, thank you Ted!
This director has a straight vision for this film and with an absolutely stellar cast bringing a story that should be shown in every classroom!
In the end – meet the women you don’t know behind the mission you do!